Actually, his biggest mistake was saying that debating was his biggest mistake. It says so much about who Rick Perry is–unsure of himself and afraid to face the public except in situations he controls, and yet arrogant at the same time. Doesn’t he realize that refusing to debate would have been even worse than debating? Ducking debates sends the public a message that you do not think that their opinion matters and shows a lack of respect for the great quadrennial exercise of choosing a leader for the nation. His comment on Fox News was, “All they’re interested in is stirring it up between the candidates instead of really talking about the issues that are important to the American people.” Damn right “they” are–“they” being the media. The value of stirring things up, of course, is that the public can see candidates in unscripted moments, as when Perry made his gaffe that people who don’t support the Dream Act “don’t have a heart.” In his races in Texas, Perry could put the campaign engine in cruise control and leave it there. He could arrange things so that all his speeches were to friendly audiences. He could address the Realtors (as I heard him do) with full confidence that he would get a loud, enthusiastic ovation, and bask in the prearranged applause. He could surround himself with his security entourage, to ensure that he would not have to answer questions from impertinent reporters. He could refuse to visit with editorial boards and he could concoct phony excuses for refusing to debate, such as the failure of his 2010 Democratic opponent, former Houston mayor Bill White, to release his taxes. Presidential campaigns are different. You can run from debates, but you can’t hide. No serious presidential candidate can get away with ducking debates these days. He would reveal himself or herself as someone with deep insecurities about how he matches up with his rivals. Perry would much prefer the kind of campaign he can run in Texas, where he can speak to friendly audiences and then head out the back door without answering questions from the pesky media. Just imagine if Perry had said at the start of the presidential campaign what he said in Texas in 2010: He wasn’t going to debate unless Bill White released his taxes, and he made such stipulations for Romney and Bachmann and Gingrich and Paul. In Texas, he could play out the farce in which Mark Miner’s daily press release was about how many days White had gone without releasing his taxes. People who read or heard Perry’s remarks, made on Fox News, are going to draw the obvious conclusion that Perry didn’t want to debate because he wasn’t informed on the issues and was afraid that he would expose his lack of knowledge. In Texas, Perry was invincible. He controlled the entire government, right down to a compliant Supreme Court that would shield his travel expenditures from public view. He could refuse to debate his rivals–or, as in 2006, when he did participate in a debate, he left immediately afterward, without staying for what was supposed to be a Q and A with the media. State Senator Tommy Williams and a smirking aide stood in for Perry. So here’s the question: Will Perry participate in the remaining debates? Do his remarks on Fox signal that he intends to run as he did in Texas, finding an excuse to avoid debates? It’s a Hobson’s choice, damned if you do, damned if you don’t. [UPDATE] POLITICO is reporting that the Perry campaign has said that he is going to the Nov. 9 debate in Michigan, but after that he is a question mark for some of the glut of face-offs after that. From the POLITICO article: Perry spokesman Mark Miner said the issue is using time wisely, and noted their campaign is not alone in that. “I think all the campaigns are expressing frustration right now,” Miner told POLITICO. “We said we would do Michigan but the primaries are around the corner and you have to use your time accordingly.” * * * * The schedule does give Perry an excuse to skip some debates. But, having made his comment that his biggest mistake was debating, he will be under even more scrutiny when he next steps on a stage. And I stand by what I wrote above: “It’s a Hobson’s choice: damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t.” What to look for: Perry will probably do something he should have been doing all along, which is to run positive media, particularly about the border. The downside is that, unlike a state campaign, paid media doesn’t accomplish much in a national campaign. The public has seen the candidates on live TV, and those images will be last longer in the voters’ minds than paid spots on television. Then he will do a lot of meet-and-greet events as the primaries approach. Perry is very good at these, but the best he can hope for from the networks is a few soundbites.
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